The Lived Body Accomplishes Life

Every person has an objective body. This consciousness is not primary—we grow into it over time. However, focusing on the objective body as an object alienates us from our presence. Being in the subjective or lived body, on the other hand, is the source of our spontaneous expression and individual development.

The German language allows a distinction that does not exist in many other languages: the distinction between Leib (subjective or lived body) and Körper (objective body). Leib is the older term. It is close to the word life, as something living, lived, sensed, but also the living phenomenon, the lived bodily presence of a human being. Körper on the other hand, derives from the Latin corpus, meaning corpse. It primarily denotes the material, tangible object. We can look at our lived body like a thing among things, that is to say, as an objective body; we can see ourselves from the outside. Our lived body is connected to physical things; it is resistant, material, visible.

The Lived Body and the Objective Body are Two Different Things

Thomas Fuchs

Philosophical anthropology, and Helmuth Plessner in particular, has expressed the juxtaposition of being a lived body and having an objective body: I am my lived body, but I also have this lived body as my objective body. In this way, philosophical anthropology in the early twentieth century turned against the Cartesian dualism of modernity, according to which the ‘I’ could be thought of as an incorporeal spirit in an external, objective, bodily vehicle. This is in contrast to the idea of embodiment: we are inescapably subjective bodily beings who are at home in our whole living body, even if we can bring this body to consciousness as an objective body. But this distinction between lived body and objective body is not innate. In a sense, the infant still exists in a pure lived body and the view from the outside of their objective body only becomes accessible to them in the course of the second year of life. Recognising oneself as an objective body is intimately linked to the development of self-awareness and the ability to reflect.

Our everyday experience as adults is thus characterised by a polarity in which we constantly move back and forth between being a lived body and having an objective body. At one pole, we find our lived body as the carrier of our life, mediating our perceptions and movements as a medium, but in doing so, it remains in the background itself. For example, I don’t have to pay attention to how my lived body forms the words I am about to speak. The lived body thereby relieves our consciousness. It is tacitly operative in all my expressions of life, as the basis of the self-evident accomplishment of life.

When the body emerges from this latency, however, it becomes the experienced and felt body, for example as a space of tension or relaxation, of hunger and thirst, of desire and dislike, etc., and also as a resonance space for the feelings that take hold of us. The more I step out of the immediacy of the body and use it as a tool, for example to carry out a certain movement, the more it loses its mediating character. The body becomes the instrument of my intention, but it can also elude my command and then stand in my way. The lived body therefore becomes an objective body, above all when the usual course of life is impaired, for example when I’m clumsy, when I fall, when I’m exhausted or weighed down, when I’m injured or ill. As it becomes conscious or emerges, the lived body becomes my objective body to which I am bound, which makes my existence possible, but with which it can also perish. In fear, in shortness of breath or in severe illness, I experience myself as a vulnerable, mortal creature—as a being in an objective body.

But there is another form in which the lived body becomes the objective body, namely under the gaze of others. Through this the body receives an exterior. It becomes a body-for-others, as Jean-Paul Sartre put it—in being seen, through consciously appearing and presenting ourselves to others. Becoming aware of our own appearance in front of others is associated with core personal feelings such as shame, embarrassment or pride.

So the objective body always appears where the unnoticed mediation is interrupted and attention is turned back on the lived body. Thus, the corporeality of the human being oscillates in the polarity between the unconscious and unnoticed lived body and the resistantly conspicuous, visible objective body. The lived body is ultimately not an object at all, but the movement of life itself. The objective body, on the other hand, is the lived body that has become conscious, that has been determined, stopped for a moment. Being a lived body is becoming. Possessing an objective body is having become.

The Primary Self-Experience Arises in Relationships

The development that leads from being a lived body to having an objective body is a development of increasing self-consciousness. At the beginning of life, we find pure lived corporeality. It begins before birth, in the womb, namely with a core self-experience that the fetus already possesses: it is already able to distinguish whether it is touching itself or the surrounding womb. Because our own body feels different, it senses the touch. Thus the newborn also already shows a pre-reflexive self-experience, because it senses pain or hunger as its own and reacts with the expression of affect, for example by crying.

Through increasing integration of the various sensory and movement experiences, a lived bodily-spatial self is formed in the first months of life. Infant development researcher Daniel Stern speaks of a core self, which does not yet recognize itself. However, this primary self-experience cannot be separated from the relationships with the first attachment figures. It develops within the framework of primary intersubjectivity or “intercorporeality”, as phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty called it. Soon after birth, babies are able to reliably imitate adult facial movements such as opening their mouth, showing their tongue, pointing their tongue, and frowning. They already have an intermodal body schema that can translate the perceived facial expressions of others into their own perceived body movements: the tongue that is seen is experienced analogously to their own tongue that is felt or moved. But this means that the body of the other and our own body are experienced as related to each other.

Through bodily imitation, an emotional resonance increasingly develops between the attachment figures and the infant. As early as six to eight weeks, so-called proto-conversations—in other words, finely tuned coordinations of gestures, vocalizations and affects—become apparent in parent-child dyads. In the course of these interactions, the child acquires specific interactive schemata—Daniel Stern describes them as implicit relational knowing. In this, the knowledge of how to deal with others, exchange feelings, attract attention, re-establish contact, etc. grows. It is a mutual understanding based on lived bodily communication and empathy. Through this affective resonance, the infant gets to know themselves in the other. Even before any self-reflection, the human being experiences themselves in the affective reflection through others, namely as perceived, valued and loved. This is how their “self with others” or their social self-experience arises.

However, before the child learns to recognize themselves and their body in the mirror, a central developmental step occurs in the eighth to ninth month of life. It involves the phenomenon of joint attention: babies start to turn towards objects together with the adults who show these to them. Soon after, babies move on to directing the attention of adults themselves to things by pointing gestures, while making sure of the adults’ attention by brief glances. Pointing gestures are the expression of a shared relationship to objects seen by both partners. This is no longer the primary, dyadic situation of the first months of life, but a triadic situation consisting of the infant, the adult and the jointly seen and intended object or the common goal of an action. Joint attention manifests a specifically human communication: the understanding about a common, external point of reference. This is also a fundamental distinction from the mental abilities of primates, which do not develop joint attention.

The pointing gesture is fundamental in still another way. The infant experiences that there is a direction of attention that they can influence themselves. They begin to understand that the world looks different through the eyes of the attachment figure but that they can communicate with the latter about it. They show the attachment figure an object because they realize that the latter does not yet see it but could see it in a moment. This reflects a fundamental new stage of intersubjectivity, which the developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello also calls the nine-month revolution.

As Children, We Fall from the Paradise of Lived Corporeality

The primary, lived body-centerd perspective of the first year of life is joined by an awareness of the perspective of others. This perspective is also directed towards the child itself. The adults point to the child, name it and give it a name. The child gradually internalizes this external perspective into reflexive self-awareness. It no longer only looks at external objects but also at itself through the eyes of others. From the second year of life, the reflexive or personal self gradually develops. The child becomes able to recognize themselves in the mirror, to call themselves ‘I’ and to distinguish themselves from others who can also say ‘I’. They are increasingly able to transcend their original central position and, as Plessner puts it, to assume an eccentric position. Thus the child is both in the centre of their world and they can also decenter themselves and see it from the outside. This is by no means merely a cognitive achievement. It includes the range of self-reflexive emotions: shame, embarrassment, pride or guilt. These emotions are based on the internalized, evaluative gaze of others.

Shame leads to freezing in the focus of the others’ gaze, to a loss of unselfconscious lived body existence. It is replaced by the objective body seen by others. A shy person often does not know what to do with their lived body and becomes embarrassingly aware of their objective body. In the paradise narrative of Genesis, too, the growth of awareness and shame are closely intertwined in their emergence. By eating from the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve’s eyes open, it says, and they recognize themselves in their nakedness, which they now hide from God—from the omnipresent gaze of the other. Shameful nakedness means the transformation of the unselfconscious early childhood existence in the lived body into the conscious possession of the objective body.

That the tree of knowledge is associated with the knowledge of our own mortality confirms how our lived corporeality is limited by the other’s gaze. Before this gaze, the lived body also loses its original eternity, its timelessness, the pure becoming of life and turns into a transient, earthly objective body. Here we fall, we might say, from the paradise of original existence in the lived body. With the consciousness that we are being looked at, and with shame, reflexivity or self-consciousness begins. The child falls out of the primary lived bodily connection with the world and is thrown back onto its objective body. It is also alienated from its lived body to a certain degree. But the foreign gaze not only separates us from the immediacy of being in the lived body through our shame: before the foreign gaze, the lived corporeality becomes not only one that is seen and naked, but also one that is made, intended and sometimes artificial. What we are turns into what we portray—our role.

The lived body becomes the objective body-for-others, the object of their evaluation and the instrument of self-expression, be it in an arbitrarily assumed pose, in clothing, jewelry, cosmetics or anything else. Increasingly, the objective body also carries attitudes, behaviors, manners and roles that the child takes on from others. They learn to present themselves in their objective body but also to play a role and inhibit spontaneous expression. The ability to master the lived body and acquire self-discipline is part of the cultural process. Education or the cultural imprint on the lived body that imparts socially prescribed attitudes, manners and behavior, becomes our second nature as a habitual bearing. This can, however, come into conflict with the spontaneity of the lived body, for example when we lose our composure. The natural side of the lived body and of the lived body’s development resists to a certain degree the mastery of their nature that the human being performs on themselves in the course of cultural development.

The origin of personal self-consciousness arising from interaction with others was emphasized by the philosopher George Herbert Mead. He distinguishes the primary, spontaneous, unreflective selfhood, the so-called ‘I’, from the objectified self or ‘me’—the way I experience myself as reflected by others. This results in a dialectical confrontation between primary self-experience as a source of spontaneity on the one hand and the attitudes or roles adopted from others that the child acquires to form their identity, on the other. The attitudes of others form the organized ‘me’ and we react to it as an ‘I’. The ‘self’ as the overarching identity of the individual is formed from the ongoing interaction between ‘I’ and ‘me’ through the integration of spontaneity and role.

The earliest structures of social identity are not formed through linguistic attributions but through lived bodily imitation and identification with role patterns: for example, the good one, the fancy one, the little princess or the softie, the knight, the little adult, and so on. Of course, children are not any of these things from the outset. Every defined social identity requires that we match our self-image with the image that is offered or assigned to us from the outside but this often comes into conflict with the primary, spontaneous selfhood.

Human Identity Oscillates Between Spontaneity and Role

The basic dilemma of human identity arises from taking on the self-images or roles created by others, which inevitably and repeatedly become foreign to the spontaneous, nascent self. My role garment then no longer fits me, so to speak, and has to be re-tailored. This inner contradiction is also expressed in the term ‘person’, which is originally derived from the Latin ‘persona’, that is ‘mask’ or ‘role’, but then also refers to the wearer of these roles themselves. The mask corresponds to the view from the outside, that is, the person’s objective body. The lived body behind the mask corresponds to the person in their spontaneity and ability to develop. The very concept of ‘person’, inseparably and at the same time ambivalently, links lived body and objective body, inside and outside, own and foreign.

It constitutes our eccentric position as human beings—and thus also the contradictoriness of our personal existence between being in the lived body and having an objective body—that we oscillate between both experiences in everyday life. However, this makes it our task to find a balance between the two forms of existence. Our contemporary culture is characterized by the fact that spontaneous lived bodily modes of existence are increasingly being replaced by instrumental ones. A trained and styled body, for example, becomes a means of self-staging and self-marketing. In societal competition, appearance becomes a commodity—all the more so in a public sphere determined by the media and the cultural industry, by advertising and marketing.

Keeping up with this requires constant work on our own bodies, which costs time and money. The body is no longer considered destiny but becomes a project. Thus being a lived body shifts more and more to having an objective body, to being seen from the outside and thus also to the separation of the thinking subject from its body. This is a cultural development that aims at emancipation from the lived body and its transformation into the disposable objective body. That is why, for a long time, being a lived body is no longer a matter of course in our culture. Rather, it becomes a task itself. Paradoxical as it may sound, we need to return to rehearsing the self-evident.

A new dietetics, an art of living appropriate for the lived body, would first of all consist in the willingness to engage with the spontaneous development of the lived body. It would also consist in putting being a lived body above having an objective body again, instead of instrumentalizing the objective body more and more. So it would be a matter of descending into the lived body with consciousness again and being present in the consummation of life. We can do this by being mindful of simple, everyday activities: breathing, eating and drinking, lying down, bathing, walking, waiting, being silent. It can also include finding our way back to our own lived body through exercises for the lived body that are not aimed at top sporting performance but which carry their meaning and expression within themselves.

The dominance of the performance principle in a technical civilization, the omnipresence of the media and the image, perception increasingly confined to visual and digital signals, and not least the progressive scarcity of time—all this runs counter to life as a lived bodily existence. Being a lived body remains characterized by proper time, by rhythmical and periodically recurring processes. Breathing in and out has a temporal shape. We cannot ‘optimize’ it or speed it up without running out of breath. But the breath is indeed a way of being a lived body that can be practiced meditatively in such a way that we are increasingly supported by it. For the lived body supports us, while the objective body, like an idol, requires constant service and sacrifice. Of course for us, as personal, reflective beings, there is no going back to pure lived corporeality. But the thoughtful person is able to handle the tension between having an objective body and being a lived body in such a way that they are able to live in and with their lived corporeality without alienating themselves.

This lecture by Thomas Fuchs is the first part of the double contribution “The development of self-consciousness and learning in the harmony of lived body and objective body” at the World Teachers’ Conference 2023. Educational perspectives were discussed afterwards by Wilfried Sommer, professor at Alanus University. All contributions can be viewed at

Translation Christian von Arnim
Photos Charlotte Fischer

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